False friends

When learning a foreign language, you sometimes encounter false friends: words that sound like words in your native language, but which don’t mean the same thing. For example, the French word sensible means sensitive, not sensible. The French for sensible is prudent or sage. A Rathaus is not a home for German rats but a town hall. The Irish word for food, bia, sounds like beer – but beer is beoir or leann. The word pan means bread in Spanish and Japanese, and sir or mister in Polish and Ukrainian. And remember not to try to borrow books from a French or Portuguese librairie, a Spanish librería or an Italian libreria – these words all mean book shop. A library is a biblioteca in Italian, Portuguese and Spanish, and a bibliothèque in French.

Some foreign words sound like rude words in your language. For example, the German words Fahrt (ride, journey) and Fach (panel, case, subject) cause much amusement among English-speaking students of German. As do the Irish words faic (nothing), as in faic na fride (not one jot), and feic (to see/see!).

Fortunately quite a few words are international and are used in many different languages, often with some adjustments for the spelling, writing and pronunciation conventions of each language. International words include telephone, television, taxi, hotel, restaurant, airport, etc.

You can find a longer list of false friends here.

This entry was posted in Language, Language learning.

15 Responses to False friends

  1. Polly says:

    I can think of a million for Armenian for some reason but I’ll limit it to 3 languages:
    The word for “how?” in Russian is “Ka(h)k.” In (West.)Armenian, this is a popular way to say a dirty word that, in English, starts with “sh.”

    In Spanish, “bread” is “pan.” Almost the same pronunciation for “thing” in Armenian. (I can only speak for Western pronounciation)

    The word for, “I” in Armenian is “Ես” which is pronounced, “Yes!” Don’t assume you’ve got agreement when the other person starts talking. 😀

    The Spanish word for “pregnant” is “embarazada.” A guy once used this word to tell his friends that he was embarrassed about something. You can imagine the reaction he got.

  2. Polly says:

    One more that’s happened to me personally.
    I wanted to use my Spanish with some of my co-workers. We were about to have some birthday cake and so I said, “quiero comer el gato.” Anyone who knows Spanish will probably laugh at that ridiculous statement as my coworkers did.
    In Armenian “gato” = “cake”
    In Spanish, “gato” = “cat”!!! (trans. “I want to eat the cat”)
    Strangely, the Armenian word for “cat” is very similar (a true-friend?), it’s “gadoo” (կատու).

  3. TJ says:

    The word “cat” reminded me of the turkish word “kat” which means “floor” (of a building) … and by the way in my dialect here we use the same word sometimes but with hard K and hard T.

    The word “Fach” in german sounds exactly like the word “trap” in Arabic!

    mentioning “beer” in irish reminds me of the name of Whiskey which is meant to be “uisce beatha” (water of life) and I have a feeling that the word “uisce” is the origin of the word “Whiskey” … don’t you think so?

  4. Zachary R. says:

    Lol @Polly. In French, gâteau (cake) sounds a lot like gato (cat) in Spanish too.

    A favorite word for English people learning French is the French word “phoque” (seal), which literally sounds like… an English swear word.

  5. Polly says:

    Zachary R. – I’m glad you pointed that out. I wonder if Armenian borrowed it from French. I had always assumed “Gato” was a derivative of the Armenian word for milk, “gaht.” “gaht-ov” would be the instrumental case – “with milk.” But, W. Armenian borrows heavily from French: piscine (pool), kravat (necktie), and many others.
    I take great pleasure (schadenfreude?) in pointing out the French words in my wife’s vocabulary. She’s usually dismayed at having assumed these were “true” Armenian words. 😉

  6. Tim says:

    My personal favourite false friend has to be the German word “Gift” which means “poison”!

    “Gift” also means “poison” in Sweedish and Norwegian as well as meaning “married”

  7. TJ says:

    Maybe that’s why “marriage” is not a favorable custom?
    well in German also we have “Saft” (juice) which sounds like the Arabic for “tar” زفت

    but maybe, the vowel is lil bit different but the sound is almost the same!

    The trick with false friends as you call it is a common thing when we study actually (especially if you are someone studying microbiology for example where there are lot of scientific names!) My friends used to approximate the names they encounter to something in Arabic or in our dialect in general and just say it that way!!

  8. Sean says:

    When I lived in Russia, an American buddy of mine, whose Russian was otherwise impeccable, made a hilarious gaffe in a conversation with a Russian sports enthusiast about soccer. He told his interlocutor that he had played all through high school, and was a very big fan of the sport. The Russian asked what position he had played. My friend had been a goalie, but didn’t know the Russian word, so he simply said “Я играл голым” (ya igral golym) “I played (golyj)”…the only problem is, голый, which sounds very much like “goalie” in English, actually means “naked”, the Russian was very confused, wondering what the hell kind of high school my friend had attended.

  9. parkbench says:

    There’s a famous Japanese example: the verbs 座る and 触る (suwaru and sawaru, to sit and to touch/feel respectively). Woe betide the foreigner who innocently asks the young lady on the train 触ってもいい? (Can I touch you?)

  10. parkbench says:

    Haha, wait–I just realized my example isn’t a false friend at all–it’s just a false homonym. My mistake!

    Okay, how about the American guy talking in Spanish about the nice kashmere vestido (dress) he just bought?

    Another interesting one with Japanese (it’s real this time, I swear)–ナイーブ(naiibu), the Japanese loan-word of naive, has come to mean something much more endearing. Rather than hopelessly idealistic and ignorant, it has a connotation of innocent and simple, more along the lines of a darling little girl.

  11. Tomensnaben says:

    Latin-“bonus” (Good) and “molestus” (annoying). The latter is fun since the nominative/ablative feminine “molesta” sounds like “molester.” Quam molesta est–She’s so annoying.

  12. renato says:

    In Swedish there is Tack, which means thanks; in Polish, tak means yes; and the same tak in Russian means ‘and so..’
    Another one is: when we celebrate a drink in English we say cheers! in Portuguese we say ‘tin-tin’ in this case the letter T is pronounce CH as in cheese. But tin-tin in Japanese pronounciation is the name of women’s sex.

  13. Benjamin says:

    The most popular and most annoying English false friend for German pupils has got to be “to become” which looks and sounds a bit like “bekommen” (to get). So an unwary pupil might say sentences like this in a restaurant: “I become a schnitzel.”* – Hopefully not! 😀

    Oh, and I’ve just remembered another nice false friend. In Latin a player is “lusor”, which sounds a bit like “loser”.
    And the Latin verb “ludere” (to play), looks just like the German word “Luder” which means “hussy/minx”. ó.Ò
    (well, and most probably Luder also stems from ludere)

    And finally about the German word “Fach”: Just pronounce the “ch” right and you won’t cause any problems. 😉

  14. steven says:

    i think this website is rubbish i wante to no what the meaning and origin of sensible is and u wouldnt give it to meeeeeeeeeeeeee ahhhhhhhhhhh
    love uu lots

  15. Benjamin says:

    If you want to know a word’s meaning, why don’t you look it up in a dictionary?

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